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The personal experience and account of
Michael Towstik

(Air Dept)

I would like to thank The Staten Island Advance for permitting us to reprint the following article on this web site.

Veteran of the week

Michael Towstik, Elm Park - U.S. Navy, World War II

Saturday, December 22, 2001

Service History

Michael Towstik gave himself an unusual New Year's present in 1942: He enlisted in the Navy shortly after Jan. 1, which also happened to be his birthday.

After training in Green Bay, Wisc., and the Chicago Navy Pier, he graduated as a first-class machinist mate and was shipped to the West Coast, where he went through Naval Aerial Gunnery Training. His training was interrupted when he broke two vertebrates in his neck while training on a trampoline, forcing him to spend two weeks in the Oak Harbor Naval Hospital, after which he received even more training in gunnery and radar training.

He was eventually placed in the VC-10 Squadron as a flight mechanic, and assigned to the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay in time to sail to Pearl Harbor. "We were docked next to the sunken Arizona, although we did not know it when we got there," recalled Towstik.

While there the crew prepared to take part in the invasion of Saipan and Tinian islands. For his part, Towstik was assigned to the engineering mechanics crew.

In 1943, after participating in the battles for Saipan, Tinian and the Pelau Islands, battles, the Gambier Gay took part in the fight for the Pelau Islands, then prepared for the invasion of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. During that invasion, on Oct. 25, 1944, the Gambier Bay was sunk. Towstik was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1946 as an aviation machinist's mate first class.

Awards and honors

Towstik is a past trustee and delegate, as well as a current member of the Richmond County Post, Veterans of Foreign Wars. He was elected to the position of post commander in 1981. In 1983, the post honored Towstik with its annual Michael F. DiSogra Memorial Award for his service in veterans' affairs. He is also a member of the Boy Scouts of America, the National Rifle Association, the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association; the CV Association and the Tailhook Association.

In December 1975, he was awarded the Purple Heart by the Navy, 32 years after he should have received it for injuries suffered during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Civilian life

The soon-to-be 80 year old was born in Brooklyn and moved to Elm Park as a child.

Following the war, he tried a few jobs, and after a short stint in California, he returned to New York. Towstik then worked in various jobs with dredging companies, a copperworks factory in New Jersey and with the Bayonne Navy Yard as a wharf/dock builder.

He also joined for the Department of Sanitation, working on its tugboats. When that division was abolished, he became a housing inspector. He retired in 1983.

His wife of 47 years, the former Avis Morrison, died in 1993

Towstik has two sons: Andrew, who is involved with computer maintenance, and Russell, who is in construction in North Carolina. He also boasts a grandson.

Most vivid service memory

During the battle of Leyte Gulf, Towstik remembers it being quiet at first.

"The ship was on submarine detail, and all precautions were taken ... but mechanics had a lot of work to do; maintenance is always a problem."

He and a partner had just fixed a plane and put it on the elevator when a tow tractor damaged its propeller. Since they stayed up until 3 a.m. fixing it, they vowed not to get up for "hell or high water" the next day.

Around 8 a.m., Towstik heard shells and explosions on the ship.

"I went up to the flight deck with my partner. I was just wearing pants, I didn't even have my shoes." They found the ship under attack from Japanese planes. According to Towstik the ship took about 34 hits. "I looked around a saw an officer put down his ear phones, that was when I knew it was time to abandon ship," he said.

After witnessing others jumping off the flight deck, some of whom hit other sailors or debris already in the water, Towstik decided on a different route to the sea.

"I went down a rope, with no knots, hand over hand because I didn't want to get hit. I watched the officers throw over packages, I guess of coding information," Towstik said. He estimates it took about 30 minutes for the ship to actually sink.

He had on a life preserver -- a new one he had been issued only the day before -- but got lucky and managed to climb into a floater net. A navigator told him they would hit land in about two days. All around him was chaos, destruction and death.

"We were getting hit with shrapnel and the garbage from the airplanes was all hitting us. That night a Japanese plane went over us, but all was calm.

"The next [evening] one of the fellas next to me gave a yelp. We figured he was injured, but instead [he was being attacked by sharks] and we had to cut him lose. We didn't say anything and didn't get his credentials, which I regret," recalled Towstik.

The sharks kept attacking the crew in the water and wounded three more men. He remembers cutting all of the wounded loose and then having a peaceful night.

"Finally, you could hear a wake in the water and somebody hollered out 'How many are you?' and somebody responded '74.' We were told that they would pick us up in a bit, but it actually took over an hour before we saw the light on the horizon," he said.

Towstik and his crewmates swam toward the ship. "I got up to the second rung and fell back in. I got up again and they grabbed me. All I wanted was water," he remembered.

After they were rescued, the men ended up aboard a medical transport that took them -- during a typhoon -- to New Guinea. Eventually, Towstik and the surviving crew members were put onto the Lurline cruise ship and were returned to the United States.

-- Interview by Advance Staff Writer Carla Barletto -- Current photo by Advance Staff Photographer Jan Somma

Copyright 2002 The Staten Island Advance. Used with permission.





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